That feeling of deep dread

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If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m very pleased for you. However, you may want to carry on reading, especially if you’re a leader in a school.

I’m talking about the feeling that many teachers have experienced when trying to sleep at night or when they first wake up or when travelling to school; or all three. A deep, sicky feeling of dread. An inner sadness that won’t be resolved by a cup of coffee or a smile from a kind colleague. In the ‘best’ cases it may last a few days, at worst months and years.

I know this feeling because I have felt it during my career. I am also very ashamed to admit that I know that I have caused (at least) one colleague to have this feeling; they were brave enough to tell me.

It isn’t just being fed-up or not looking forward to a particular class or not getting on with someone or first day nerves. It’s more than that. It usually occurs when a person really cares, maybe too much about teaching and their school. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t feel this if you didn’t really care.

It rarely stems from bad relationships or poor behaviour from students. Yes, they can be challenging and upsetting but most teachers have an invisible barrier like a protective halo around them for this. This deep feeling usually comes from other adults.

The feeling is often created when someone feels or has been told in some way that what they’re doing, isn’t good enough. Whether it be their lesson is ‘inadequate’ or they aren’t fulfilling their leadership role; they haven’t met the necessary requirements.

It is particularly wretched when you know that whatever the issue is, isn’t really an issue. I was once told that my lesson was ‘inadequate’ because I didn’t prove that all students had made progress in 20 minutes to the person that was watching my lesson. I knew it was all nonsense but I suddenly lost all sense of worth and self confidence. I was an experienced teacher with good outcomes and this person suddenly told me I wasn’t good enough. That weekend I seriously considered if I wanted to carry on being a teacher. It wasn’t just me. A few other, excellent teachers, were told the same. I felt sick with dread all weekend. Myself and my colleague texted each other in our dark hours over that long weekend. We had been made to feel failures. We had that deep feeling of failure and dread.

Whilst I believe in that case, that person was seriously misguided, there are times when tough conversations need to be had. There are colleagues who may well need to be told that teaching isn’t for them or a particular aspect of their role isn’t working out. It would be really dangerous to believe that everyone can make it as a teacher, meanwhile allowing students in their care to miss out on decent teaching.

So how can we avoid this feeling? I suspect that schools that have clear systems, expectations and accountability have less chance of someone feeling like this. These systems use structure to take out personalities. There’s less chance of personality clash or nastiness if a process is being followed. If you make stuff up as you go along, it’s bound to have these awful side effects.

It also occurs when something is sprung unexpectedly onto a colleague; they didn’t know it was going to happen. We hadn’t been told that the rules of our observation was to show progress for each student in 20 minutes. If we’d known the rules, we may have played the game and met the criteria. We didn’t know until it was too late. We hadn’t met the grade. Don’t spring things on people and certainly don’t let them hear things from someone else or in an email. Jill Berry coined the phrase at #SLTCamp East in 2014, “Eat the frog”. Don’t avoid telling someone something important. Do it face to face.

Finally, if someone tells you that they’re upset, then have the emotional intelligence to deal with it sensibly. They’ve probably taken a huge leap of faith to say it. They’re trying to resolve the horrible feeling sitting in their stomach. If you don’t care how they feel or have no ability to respond in a humane manner, you need to seriously question your role.

Remember, you will never know how much you’ve affected people you work with and this sort of stuff scars, real deep. Try and make it as humane as possible, even when things are tough.

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Thoughts on the implications of research on transfer (David Didau’s ResearchED session)

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David has kindly shared his presentation from the session here. It was a thought provoking session that referenced research on transfer and comes from his, and Nick Rose’s  recently published book here.

I came from David’s sessions pondering 3 main things.

1. If we struggle to naturally transfer between contexts, why do schools bother with discrete lessons on learning. A few years ago I was part of a team that was timetabled to teach what was called ‘learning to learn’. We spent hours planning how we could get students to understand how they learnt (lots of thinking hats and learning styles) that followed a tried and tested programme established by another school; I forget the name of it. However, it was really obvious that if they didn’t get to use some of these tools in their actual subject classes then the skills weren’t going to transfer. We ditched the lessons and went to drop down days. We ditched the drop down days and it was obvious some of this needed to be done in subject lessons. That was too big an ask for teachers so it stopped.

Whilst not all of what we did was reliably research based, we did do some stuff that research has suggested is good for learning, so are schools wasting their time having discrete lessons or tutor times/assemblies on learning/revision strategies? Should it all be done by subject teachers to ensure transfer into ther subject?

2. I used to teach A level critical thinking. It was probably one of the best things I’ve agreed to teach outside my subject specialism. It changed the way I think, teach and understand logic and reasoning. I apply it across many contexts and use it regularly in my teaching in RE, however, did the students manage to transfer the skills learnt into their other subjects? I think many did. I once received an email from an ex student that told me that her A level Critical thinking had essentially been retaught in her Law degree and she had a huge advantage over other students that hadn’t studied it at ks5. She could easily transfer those skills into Law. However, there were times when students came out with horrific ‘sweeping generalisations’ or ‘ ad homines’ even though they knew what they were, why they were weak logic but couldn’t transfer them to another context, particularly a personal one e.g ‘All year 7s are annoying’. 

If I, and some others could transfer the skills but others not so much, what was different between us?

3. Finally, David mentioned getting students to move seats or rooms to encourage students to vary the physical context of learning. I have alsways tried to get as many mock exams in the real exam hall, in the real exam conditions as possible but it’s obviously limited (PE/Drama generally lose a teaching room). So, I’ve decided that now, whenever students do a test in my room, they have to move table. I told them this week that research suggests it may help them. They nodded and agreed. Nothing to lose, maybe something to gain.

Start of year baseline tests; why bother?

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Both my year 11 classes had a test for their first lesson this year, however it wasn’t a baseline test. It was a test on their last topic before the holiday and was done for the benefit of learning (recall & long-term memory) rather than diagnosis (although they always complete an analysis sheet after any test).

I have no issues giving students tests in their first lessons, however there are teachers around the country that are giving students a ‘baseline’ test. I haven’t seen them all however if similar to those I’ve seen they have the following purpose/s:

  • To find out what students know
  • To find out what students can do
  • To fulfil the school’s requirement to do a baseline test, usually to generate a predicted grade/level.

However I question the usefulness of baseline tests like this.

The problems with these tests

1. There is no way they can test ‘everything’. Which skills do you choose to test? Which knowledge? Do you test what you hope they already know or what you plan to teach them? Whatever you do, you won’t get a full view of a child’s capabilities. If you test their skills they may be hindered by their lack of knowledge on the topic and vice verse.

2. Generating a target grade from these without any other data seems risky. First day in class is tense, a bad week, feeling ill, may all contribute to poor performance and consequently an inaccurate starting point.

3. Following ‘life without levels’ many schools are going to a 5 year GCSE. In doing this they are only using GCSE style questions with students. These do not cover all the possible skills that can be developed in subjects. It also is mostly testing them on an unknown GCSE mark scheme. If you spent a couple of lessons teaching them the ‘game’ they may achieve much more.

4. If I have a class of 30 students and they take the baseline test, I have the potential of 30 different starting points. Is it then an expectation to teach 30 different lessons within a lesson? How will you bring them all to them same stage? That seems an impossible task and lends itself to the ridiculous expectation of extreme differentiation.

5. Once the test is done, many just allocate a grade or level. How is that going to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses? The only way to do effectively this would be to record for each student how they performed in each skill, which if a test of several pages, could be an immense job to organise and record. You then have the same issue as above. You will have lots of data, which would take a long time to use in planning.

6. In many cases where schools use setting, these sets are determined before the baseline. If the baseline determines ‘ability’ in a subject which is set, surely they need to be set afterwards.

So what are the alternatives?

Don’t bother. Many schools/subjects don’t bother and students seem to still achieve. Use other standardised data I.e CATS

Stagger the baselines. Give students the tests before they study the knowledge/skill to see what they already know. This might be every term or more frequently.

Separate knowledge and skills testing. This is easier for knowledge. Test students on what you plan to teach them to see what they already know. We give them 30 multiple choice questions at the start/middle/end of every topic. Testing skills without knowledge could be incredibly complex.

 

Why I use folders for GCSE

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I’ve had some discussions online about this so I thought I’d share my rationale and systems.

Since my first ever option group of GCSE I have used lever arch folders with students. At the time, the whole cohort did short course so I felt it made the full course students have something different for the full course aspect. I have continued to use level arch folders for option groups ever since.

3 groups worth of folders (some have taken theirs over the holidays)

Why I use folders

  • I think GCSE should be a preparation for further study. At key stage 5 most providers do not give students exercise books. Students are suddenly expected to use folders and a4 paperwork without having been taught how to do it. Using them at KS4 helps them to learn how to organise.
  • It stops wasting time gluing things in to books
  • Work can be organised by course structure rather than by a linear time model. I think this is better for revision and reference.
  • Work can be thrown away without having to tear things out or have unsightly crossings out (drafting is different)
  • Paperwork such as exams, worksheets, course outlines are easily available and can be referenced quickly in lessons.
  • It gives students a sense of ownership. It’s their folder. Many are very proud of it in a different way from when they had books.
  • They can use a book or A4 paper for notes. This year I’m going to buy a refill pad each. This prevents time wasted giving out paper every lesson. Those that choose to use a book can have a folder at the back (see below). Interestingly most that initially opted for a book ditched it after a while.

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  • All marked work is on paper so I have a small pile to mark rather than a large pile of books or folders. It’s a psychological benefit.
  • It saves time. Before the lesson starts they all go to the cupboard and get their folders. I don’t have to tell them to. They take turns on their table.
  • In student surveys and classroom visits, they have reported that they like them and are proud of them.
  • Life lessons. I’m teaching them how to organise paperwork in a logical, easily accessible manner. One day it might help them with their own paperwork.


Possible issues

  • Any external person who wants to turn page after page to see ‘progress‘ won’t have an easy job. (I don’t care, their work is about them, not showing progress to someone else)
  • Taking them home. They’re big and bulky. I generally don’t recommend them taking the whole file.
  • Storage. You need some decent space for them (see above).
  • Hole punching – they need several lessons on how to do this. They have no idea how to use them properly. Life lessons.
  • The new GCSE is going to be a challenge. We’ll go to two folders. One religions and one themes.

Systems

  • Use of dividers and polypockets helps with organisation
  • I do folder checks every half term-ish. This isn’t marking but checking on organisation and note making. I compete a very simple sheet at the front. The next lesson they all do their improvements.
  • I also track self reflections on these (see below) which makes it easy when report writing.
  • You have to teach students how to use them. They won’t have a natural ability to do it. Step by step. “These are called dividers. They separate your work. You write the title of the topic on the tab. You file the work BEHIND the tab”. I’ve seen folders fail. Why? Because the teacher hasn’t taught the students how to use them.

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Must do better

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A relevant meme 

How many conversations were there this week about doing better this year?

How many conversations were there about HOW things would be done better?

How are teachers meant to know how to do things better if they tried everything last year to make things better?

What does ‘better’ mean?

Based on the assumption that you tried being better last year, what are you going to do differently this year?

If you’re writing a whole school development plan, a department plan or your own development plan, what will you put in the ‘how’ box, if we know that the ‘what’ box is ‘Must do better’?

Suggestions that might make a difference:

  1. Engage with research. What can research tell us that might change how we do things? Keep it light. Don’t give staff whole research papers. Give them headlines.
  2. Focus on learning and how we learn. The team of Learning Scientists provide great blogs and resources that are accessible. http://www.learningscientists.org
  3. Listen to/Ask what others are doing. Within your school/MAT/LA and beyond. Social media such as Twitter is the quickest and easiest way to do this.
  4. List possibilities and consider which might be useful in your context. My generous Twitter colleague Fiona, @FKRitson has published and shared many ideas for intervention strategies in English.
  5. Change your use of time. What did you spend time on last year that probably had no/little impact? Leaders need to do this too. Did that meeting have any impact? Did the marking policy make any difference?
  6. Focus on PPD (personal professional development). What will you as an individual do to tweak or develop a skill or knowledge? As a leader, how will you enable your staff to access personalised PD?
  7. Ask people around you. Ask ex-students, LSAs, current students, other staff. What might make learning ‘better’ in my classroom? I’m not convinced that students always know what’s best for them but they might suggest something useful or point out something that you didn’t realise.
  8. Read. For subject knowledge, for pedagogy, for leadership; read something. A book, an article, a blog, a research paper. Ask on social media for advice on what might be good to read for your own PPD.
  9. Learn how to play the game. Teach the game. If you teach GCSE or A level, the exam game is so important. It would be lovely to ignore it; it’s would be  potentially disastrous.